Even in 2012, What Women Wear Matters

News Updates

Regardless of whether a woman is just entering the workforce or “of a certain age,” an athlete or secretary of state, beautiful or plain, what she wears to work matters and might affect her career advancement, experts say.

According to research published in the Journal of Social Psychology in May/June 2010, attractive women were deemed less suitable than unattractive women for “masculine jobs,” such as prison guard, mechanical engineer and construction supervisor, for which appearance wasn't deemed important.

“In these professions, being attractive was highly detrimental to women,” study author Stefanie Johnson, assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado Denver Business School, said in a statement. “In every other kind of job, attractive women were preferred. This wasn't the case with men, which shows that there is still a double standard when it comes to gender.”

“The assumption is that very beautiful women have no brains,” said University at Buffalo Law School professor Dianne Avery, who has conducted research into the “sexing up and dumbing down” of women's work. “That’s a stereotype.”

This is particularly true in male-dominated professions and industries, Avery acknowledged: “You have to act like a man but not too much of a man.”

Perhaps that’s why a Washington Post fashion writer observed in May 2010 that then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan “embraced dowdy as a mark of brainpower.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s ubiquitous pantsuits and first lady Michelle Obama’s toned, bare arms attracted considerable attention as well.

While many women strive to fit in with established norms for their workplace, tennis star Venus Williams, who wore a corset-style black tennis dress with flesh-colored bottoms during the French Open in 2010, chooses to stand out.

Others attract attention and unwanted consequences, such as Debrahlee Lorenzana, who filed suit against Citigroup after claiming that she was fired for looking too sexy. “Sometimes, honestly, I wish I didn’t look the way I did,” Lorenzana is quoted as saying in a New York Times article published in June 2010, “because people judge you right away.”

Perspectives Differ

“When a man looks at a woman who is dressing in a way that is emphasizing a good figure—low-cut top, fitted skirt—he automatically thinks she’s saying ‘come get it,’ ” Shaunti Feldhahn, author of The Male Factor: The Unwritten Rules, Misperceptions, and Secret Beliefs of Men in the Workplace (Crown Business, 2009), is quoted as saying in a September 2010 article on MSNBC.com.

Though many men might challenge Feldhahn’s statement, some businesses are banking on that point of view. Restaurants such as Hooters, which specialize in attractive, scantily clad waitresses, are “taking off,” according to Avery and various news reports. An article published in May 2011 by Entrepreneur.com noted that “for the next couple of years, this segment (often referred to as ‘breastaurants’) is poised to be one of the fastest-growing restaurant categories.”

“It's everywhere,” said Avery, who is conducting research on uniforms and appearance rules for large corporations in the airline, hotel, restaurant and entertainment industries. “It's about how beautiful you are, how thin, how attractive, how sexy. How alluring. How you sell the corporate brand,” she explained. “Not how competent, how smart or how capable you are of doing the job.”

“My personal view is that when people go for lunch or dinner at Hooters and then go back into the work environment, they have got to form opinions about women,” Avery told SHRM Online.

Referencing the research of Dr. Peter Glick, professor of psychology at Lawrence University, Avery noted that “someone who is dressed up in sexy clothing in a managerial role is viewed as less competent and less intelligent than a conservatively dressed manager.”

Although Avery noted that men and women are affected by appearance bias, particularly when it comes to factors such as age and weight, she said a woman is more likely than a man to be cut out of jobs for being overweight, particularly in the hospitality industry.

For example, when Delta Airlines commissioned couture designer Richard Tyler to design a new uniform for female flight attendants, the “red dress” he created was made available in small sizes only while the navy blue uniform could be ordered in a full range of sizes. “The men didn’t have anything like that,” Avery observed. “They had a range of uniforms, but none of them [was] revealing in the same way that this dress was.”

The Business Case

“The issue of clothing and appearance is simply a symptom of underlying realities,” said Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-first, an international consultancy focused on gender-balanced businesses, and author of How Women Mean Business (Wiley, 2010). “If women in companies are overwhelmingly dressed in dark, masculine-like suits, it is simply an indicator that they are adopting an integrationist approach to the dominant culture,” she told SHRM Online. “That suggests that the corporate culture has not evolved to what we call a more ‘bilingual’ 21st century environment which values the differences and complementarities that men and women bring to companies.”

Forward-thinking organizations understand that the real challenge is not to have women conform but for organizations to learn how to integrate and profit from the differences and strengths women bring to the workplace, Wittenberg-Cox added. “That will be a key leadership and management skill for this century that all managers need to learn.”

“While there is evidence that appearance does matter for both genders in hiring and promotion decisions, with ‘better’ looking people having an advantage, women's appearance continues to be considered as a factor in their credibility, professionalism and influences assumptions (while rarely voiced) about culpability in harassment,” said Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe, Los Angeles-based diversity consultants and authors, in an e-mail to SHRM Online. “Women, like members of any group that have less power in the organization, generally find that they have to be doubly aware of any factor that can present an obstacle to them, and dress is one of them. Like it or not, we do ‘judge books by their covers,’ and appearance plays a big part in assumptions about credibility and fit.”

Another reason to “reduce sexuality in professional environments,” Avery said, is to limit the risk of sexual harassment lawsuits. “I’m not trying to take a puritanical approach,” Avery noted. “Sexing up women in the workplace does and can lead to sexual harassment.”

Although there are a few state and local laws in the U.S. that protect employees, “as a general matter it is perfectly OK for an employer to discriminate on the basis of appearance,” added Avery, who has co-authored three editions of a popular casebook, Employment Discrimination Law: Cases and Materials on Equality in the Workplace (West, 2010).

Dress Codes

To avoid misunderstandings and unintentional career fallout, experts say, it’s important to communicate formal, as well as informal, unwritten, dress codes to all employees.

But adopting formal and specific dress codes can be tricky, Avery said, because standards of dress are based on social norms. And those norms vary based on geography, industry, profession and fashion trends.

“Most organizations have a professional standard. For men, it is pretty simple,” according to Ivan Misner, Ph.D., author of Business Networking and Sex (McGraw-Hill/Entrepreneur Press, 2012). But women must ask themselves questions such as “How low-cut is professional? Do my feet really have to be covered? How short is professional? And what is casual in women's clothing vs. casual for men?” he said.

Lisa Taylor Richey, founder of the American Academy of Etiquette, Inc., a training company, said HR professionals contact her regularly for advice on professional dress codes. “Most employees are so confused on what ‘business casual’ really means,” she explained. “The younger generation abuses the guidelines. So often, opportunities are lost because of it.”

That’s why Richey chose not to wear jeans to work, even while working for Levi Strauss—the company that led the business casual movement—early in her career.

“When I train and speak for corporations today, I am still amazed that young female professionals still have concerns with similar issues that I had 15 years ago,” Richey told SHRM Online. “They sigh and wonder why they are not taken seriously.”

Richey said she believes that many women have what it takes intellectually but are not presenting themselves well professionally. “The inside does not match the outside,” she explained. “Unfortunately, we still live in a society that sizes you up within seconds. What is on the outside matters.”

“Everything we do to present ourselves in the workplace is a form of communication—how we dress is just one of those forms,” according to Helen Jonsen, director of digital media at Working Mother Media and editor of workingmother.com. “For young women coming out of school where they may have dressed down every day, changing their wardrobe and style may be difficult,” she told SHRM Online.

“What you wear to work matters, especially for women,” according to Jennifer Robin, owner of Clothe Your Spirit and the author of Growing More Beautiful: An Artful Approach to Personal Style (Arteful Press, 2008). “If you can make yourself visible in a way that is appropriate for your workplace, you will be that much further ahead.

“Overtly sexual clothes, such as cleavage or ultra short skirts, will not help you get ahead, but clothes that are fitted and body-conscious can make the most of your assets in a subtle way,” Robin explained.

“Less is more, whether in makeup, jewelry or showing female curves,” said Allison Jones, CEO of Evolution Consulting Services, LLC, a career, image and organizational development firm in Stafford, Va. “If you are remotely attractive, it doesn't matter what you wear to the office, because someone will always have a snide comment regardless of your ability.”

That’s why Jones encourages her clients “to be true to their personal style but to bear in mind that conservative business attire is still best.” She learned that lesson early in her career when a male mentor pulled her aside one morning to suggest that she purchase a wardrobe of black, brown, gray and navy blue to replace the “all-red ensemble” she was wearing that day.

“The key in dressing for success is to feel comfortable in your clothes while making others pay attention to your capabilities, not your cup size,” said Jones.

“There is a lot of power in our femininity,” said Dana Lynch, a certified image consultant, speaker, author and owner of Elements of Image, an Arvada, Colo.-based firm. “I don't think we can deny we're women. … I won't say that I actually encourage my clients to ‘accentuate’ their assets, but I fully believe in dressing for your body type.”

For example, a woman with an hourglass figure will look dowdy and heavy unless she wears fitted—or semi-fitted—clothing to show her waist, Lynch explained. “The important thing is to be appropriate for the situation.”

But Lynch added: “I don't think a woman can expect to get ahead based on what she is wearing. She's got to prove herself through her work.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Click here to read the original article.